On 1 February, the People’s Liberation Army sent 20 aircraft across the median line dividing Taiwan from the Chinese mainland. Taiwan’s Defence Ministry responded to the incursion by putting its own forces on a heightened state of alert, scrambling its own fighter jets and activating air defence systems.
This breach of Taiwan’s so-called air defence identification zone (ADIZ), a large area encompassing the entire Taiwan Strait and a part of Chinese territory, is only the latest in what has become a fairly common occurrence. The median line, meant to be a temporary aberration, is no longer respected by the PLA. In 2020, China conducted 380 incursions into Taiwan’s ADIZ. In 2021, that number more than doubled to 960. Last year saw the most ADIZ incursions in history, with 1,727 breaches of the zone.
China’s objectives include wearing down Taiwan’s military capacity (particularly its air force) in order to weaken the island’s readiness, ensure the PLA is prepared to execute a military operation if necessary, and reiterate the message that the Taiwan issue is an absolute core priority of the Chinese Communist Party.
Back in Washington, the recent military manoeuvres will be interpreted as more evidence of Beijing’s hostile intent. Predicting when China’s leader, Xi Jinping, will order an invasion of Taiwan is now a favourite parlour game. Admiral Philip Davidson, the former head of US Indo-Pacific Command, testified in 2021 that China could make its move as soon as 2027 – a timeline he reiterated last month. Admiral Michael Gilday, the chief of US naval operations, said he couldn’t rule out a Chinese military operation this year. General Mike Minihan, in charge of the US military’s Air Mobility Command, wrote a memo to his troops that they could be at war with China in two years.
Americans are hardly the only ones making predictions. While he didn’t offer a date, former Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott commented during a 2021 think tank event that “it’s highly possible that at some point in time, perhaps quite soon, China might up the ante” on the Taiwan question. The 2022 Lowy Institute Poll found that 64 per cent of Australians believed a military conflict between the United States and China over Taiwan would pose a threat to Australia’s vital interests in the next decade.
The general assumption is clear: a Chinese invasion of Taiwan is no longer a question of “if”, but “when”. The US Defence Department is basing its plans on the worst-case contingency and, in coordination with allies such as Japan and the Philippines, seeking to convince Beijing that the benefits of a military operation aren’t worth the costs. The United States clinched a deal with the Philippines to expand US basing access there. On Okinawa, the US Marine Corps will establish a new regiment designed to quickly mobilise in the event of a Taiwan contingency. All of this comes as the Biden administration tries to break a $19 billion backlog of arms shipments to Taiwan to turn the island into an impenetrable fortress.
Yet despite all the planning and wargaming, Chinese military action against the island isn’t as inevitable as many think it is.
Executing such an operation would be an extremely difficult affair, no matter how capable, large or fully-funded your military is. While it’s indisputably true that China now boasts the world’s largest navy (at least in number of ships), possesses a sizable ballistic missile arsenal and is second only to the United States in terms of what it spends on the military, it’s also indisputably true that crossing the 160-kilometre Taiwan Strait is no easy task. Assuming China could actually assemble the number of vessels required for mounting an amphibious operation of this magnitude, the PLA would also need to field specific types of ships, such as landing craft, to transport the hundreds of thousands of Chinese soldiers necessary to neutralise Taiwan’s defence forces and occupy the island. The journey will be a rough one. The Taiwanese will have mined some of the seabed to damage transporters carrying the troops and those ships will have to contend with the anti-ship batteries stationed on a rocky coast that isn’t suitable for D-Day-style landings.
Xi has never renounced using force to compel Taiwan’s reunification. But Xi's own words suggest he would rather accomplish this objective through peaceful means. This preference has less to do with some kind of humanitarian affinity towards the island’s residents than with concerns about the PLA’s ability to take Taiwan by force, the damage such an operation would inflict on the PLA (regardless of whether the operation succeeds), and the international fallout that would result.
Military action in Taiwan could single-handedly ruin Beijing’s entire foreign policy strategy and jeopardise Xi’s goal of transforming China into the world’s great power. China’s neighbours, including Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, Vietnam and India, will lose whatever predisposition they have towards dialogue and enhance their own military capabilities in response. Indeed, a Taiwan contingency would do more than anything else to solidify the very anti-China balancing coalition Xi desperately wants to avoid.
Instead of pontificating about when China will try to cow Taiwan into submission, we should think more deeply about what can be done to prevent such a scenario from happening in the first place. For many, this entails jettisoning the concept of strategic ambiguity and making it clear to Beijing that going to war with Taiwan also means going to war with the United States.
The more prudent policy would be to do everything possible to sustain a status-quo that has kept the peace in the Taiwan Strait for more than seven decades, however undesirable this may be to the hawks on all sides. The Taiwanese people seem to think so as well; surveys conducted by the National Chengchi Centre find that 57 per cent prefer the current arrangement, while less than five per cent desire independence as soon as possible. In this rare instance, the most prudent course of action is also the most popular.